Electrotactile stimulation on the tongue: Intensity perception, discrimination, and cross-modality estimation

Cecil A. Lozano, Kurt A. Kaczmarek, Marco Santello

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


Due to its high sensitivity and conductivity, electrotactile stimulation (ETS) on the tongue has proven to be a useful and technically convenient tool to substitute and/or augment sensory capabilities. However, most of its applications have only provided spatial attributes and little is known about (a) the ability of the tongue's sensory system to process electrical stimuli of varying magnitudes and (b) how modulation of ETS intensity affects subjects' ability to decode stimulus intensity. We addressed these questions by quantifying: (1) the magnitude of the dynamic range (DR; maximal comfortable intensity/perception threshold) and its sensitivity to prolonged exposure; (2) subjects' ability to perceive intensity changes; and (3) subjects' ability to associate intensity with angular excursions of a protractor's handle. We found that the average DR (17 dB) was generally large in comparison with other tactile loci and of a relatively constant magnitude among subjects, even after prolonged exposure, despite a slight but significant upward drift (p < 0.001). Additionally, our results showed that as stimulus intensity increased, subjects' ability to discriminate ETS stimuli of different intensities improved (p < 0.05) while estimation accuracy, in general, slightly decreased (increasing underestimation). These results suggest that higher ETS intensity may increase recruitment of rapidly adapting mechanoreceptor fibers, as these are specialized for coding stimulus differences rather than absolute intensities. Furthermore, our study revealed that the tongue's sensory system can effectively convey electrical stimuli despite minimal practice and when information transfer is limited by memory and DR drift.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)50-63
Number of pages14
JournalSomatosensory and Motor Research
Issue number2-3
StatePublished - Jun 2009


  • Dynamic range
  • Electrocutaneous
  • Human-machine interface
  • Psychophysics
  • Sensory augmentation
  • Sensory substitution

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Sensory Systems


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